Blog 37January 2013
Feature: Kill the Red Spot! Was Leveson
Barking up the wrong tree?
NewsScan: Walmart’s winning ways
Quote of the Month
Poems of Place: Urbino nocturne
Recommended reading: Instant Messages
by Laura Solomon
The Baslow Letters (continued): Dear Señor
KILL THE RED SPOT!
Was Leveson barking up the wrong tree?
Leveson seems to have forgotten that press freedom was not lightly won; that it took several centuries of defying censorship and establishment repression to achieve what we have now; that the word was always at risk of the blue pencil, or in the case of the 19th century in Britain – the red spot.
Leveson’s suggestion of a kite mark for a legitimised press is of course couched in the language of moderation, but it rather gives the game away. What was the red spot? It was the obligatory sign to be printed on licensed newspapers of the 19th century.
The spot confirmed that a newspaper had paid for permission to print. It differentiated the ‘respectable’, the establishment press, from the radicals. Its intention was to outlaw and silence papers edited by William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, Henry Hetherington, Bronterre O’Brien, Earnest Jones, George Julian Harney and Feargus O’Connor who demanded reform of parliament, democracy and a free press.
Invitation to the great and the good
No one would argue today that a kite mark might constitute a tax on knowledge as the red spot certainly was. It would ‘merely’ be a symbol of a press that did not abuse celebrities and members of the public, did not lie, and was accountable for its sins, honouring such journalistic principles as truth, objectivity and impartiality (assuming society could achieve a consensus on their definition). What Leveson says the modern press requires, seemingly with the wholehearted backing of Ed Miliband, J.K.Rowling, Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off movement is a regulatory body that would be the custodian of such principles.
Alas one person’s objectivity is another’s prejudice and, as with the task of recruiting all committees, commissions and inquiries, the nature of that recruitment instantly breeds suspicion: who appoints the judges and according to what criteria? What is rarely considered in the selection of the great and the good is you and me; the florist at the corner, the Mum with her kids waiting for the Number 9 bus or anybody at the Darby and Joan Club autumn bazaar (much less the readers of the old News of the World).
No, the names to regulate whatever is deemed regulateable will be selected in the age-old manner – as Judge Leveson was, exercising narrow criteria not a little to do with being distinguished, part of the establishment – and ‘safe’. It does not take three guesses to envisage the constitution of a body to regulate the press. A few moments’ deliberation might lead to the conclusion that as far as regulation is concerned we have been here before, many times in many different forms, but always with the same intent – control.
Elephants in the newsroom
Writing in the UK edition of the Huffington Post (3 December, 2012), James Alan Anslow states that ‘in many ways the Leveson Report is an impressive piece of work; it is a detailed, political and expedient response to’ (here Anslow suspends his approval) ‘an absurdly amorphous and poorly considered brief’. He cites what he considers Leveson’s ‘two showstopping misjudgements: two ignored elephants in the newsroom’.
First, Leveson ‘neglects, almost to the point of dismissing its significance, the Internet, deeming it a “moral vacuum”. It is almost as if the power and reach of the Internet did not exist, scarcely impinging on the present and future of the traditional press’.
Yet in the UK, the US ‘and most other parts of the developed world,’ says Anslow, the Internet ‘is responsible for the irreversibly accelerating demise of print newspapers’. It is both the elephant in the room and, for mass communication via print, the enemy at the door.
Anslow considers that Leveson fundamentally misunderstands the nature of news journalism. He states:
Journalism operates in society's borderlands – it is liminal; that is to say it can only fulfil its function if it can move between structures, without being in thrall to any of them (including media moguls). For example, journalists must find operational space within which to conduct off-the-record conversations with contacts be they police officers or politicians; good hacks have always plied their trade by being less than straightforward.
In other words, subversion is both natural to the trade and inescapable. The publication of news is, says Anslow, ‘always, to one extent or another, "loaded" and provocative…There will always be times that journalism tests and even breaks the law: whether to expose corrupt MPs by buying stolen data or to unveil royal hypocrisy by procuring a transcript of an adulterous phone conversation’.
‘Quicksand of moral relativity’
Like many other Leveson-doubters Anslow believes that there are already in Britain criminal laws in place to deal with press abuse if ‘those laws are applied with vigour and probity’. Invoking ‘public interest defence or mitigation invariably plunges the process into the quicksand of moral relativity so beloved of expensive lawyers’.
What we need in the opinion of journalist Mick Hume is more freedom, not less. Author of There is No Such Thing As a Free Press…and we need one more than ever (Societas, 2012), Hume believes that freedom is no exemplar of order but ‘an unruly mess’. He writes:
We should defend press freedom and freedom of expression as a bedrock liberty of a civilised society – and defend the right of a free press to be an unruly mess. That some abuse press freedom, as in the phone-hacking scandal, is no excuse for others to encroach upon it. Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving. It is an indivisible liberty for all or none at all.
It was to be expected that commitments to such liberty, expressed by politicians including prime minister David Cameron, would be seen by many as calculated to curry favour with the press. After all, Leveson and the public learnt much about the cosying-up between government ministers (and those of the previous, Labour government) and high-fliers in the Murdoch empire such as former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (affectionately referred to as ‘Country Suppers’). Cameron had actually appointed ex-News of the World Andy Coulson his press secretary until revelations about phone-hacking forced Coulson’s exit from Downing Street.
Two QCs, Ben Emmerson and Hugh Tomlinson in a UK Guardian article ‘No threat to freedom’ (4 December 2012) conceded that ‘The politicians who oppose Leveson will be able to rely on the support of the media in future’, adding, ‘The whole point of Leveson was to expose this sort of patronage, and bring it to an end’.
Even so, forgetting for a moment where the comment is coming from, Cameron’s doubts about regulation are valid. His swiftly-expressed view was that ‘We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press’. He went on:
The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians, whether today or some time in the future, to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
Cameron’s position would be worthy of support if it were not for the fact that his government was concurrently launching draconian plans to put Internet communications under further legal surveillance.
That many British newspapers have a dire record of abusing the responsibilities of a free press is not in doubt as Leveson illustrates in telling and often distressing detail. Such practices are evident from day to day and obvious to all, but there seems to be scant analysis of why. Writing in the Guardian former Times editor Harold Evans, while believing Leveson ‘deserves support’, points out a serious weakness: ‘The biggest disappointment…is how far he [Leveson] skates over the crucial issue of ownership’.
Evans refers to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s sidelining of the law of competition in 1982 in ‘a secret deal’ by which Times Newspapers came under News International control:
All Leveson’s fine language about the need for future transparency is justified by the vaguest of references to what made it necessary in the first place. It surely matters a great deal that the greatest concentration of the British press was achieved by a backroom deal that gave News International such sway over British public life.
Culture of the bully
The issue is ‘structure’, the nature of the landscape of newspapers dominated by the usual suspects, the corporations; News International being only the most dominant in a pool of corporate sharks. That landscape in recent years has been characterised by the closure of many good newspapers or the switch from daily to weekly, especially in the provinces (a situation dramatically echoed in America).
Competition has always been fierce, but the advent of the Internet has transformed traditional rivalries into a battleground where all values take second place to naked profit. The pawns in this battle are journalists, many of them forced into reportorial conduct that permits them no option: get the story, do the dirty, tap the phones, or make way for somebody who will. In short, as the National Union of Journalists emphasise in their journal and stressed in their evidence to Leveson, it is a culture of bullying.
What meets with sympathy in the Leveson Report is the case made by the NUJ for a journalist’s ‘conscience clause’. Leveson was struck ‘by the evidence of journalists who felt they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical’.
The solution, ‘a whistle-blowing hotline’ for journalists to report bullying does, however, sound naïve if not laughable. Until the structural circumstances – the centralisation of media ownership into fewer and fewer hands – are acted upon in the name of plurality little will change, except the inexorable decline of the paper press.
In the wake of Brian
After unparalleled publicity over many months, the Leveson Inquiry will sink beneath the waves of consciousness and memory; perhaps most importantly because it set out to ask the wrong question.
What’s regrettable is that the main issue concerning the media – the nature of ownership and control – remains unaddressed. There is nothing in practice or in the stars that will in future bar the Murdoch empire from fulfilling its ambition to own the whole of BSkyB and thus rule the roost of British broadcasting.
Scandal has only delayed the process. Meanwhile, though the News of the World arguably suffered harshly as a sacrificial victim, what do we have, as the current cliché has it, going forward? Why, the Sun on Sunday. Plus ça change and happy country suppers!
Walmart’s winning ways
By Alison Prince
Walmart, currently facing down a massive strike, is America’s largest private employer. In 2011 it enjoyed a profit of 16.4 billion dollars, by the simple wheeze of paying their staff so little that the state has to make up their wages. It’s not illegal. The US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That’s dollars, mind, not pounds. If you work in a restaurant or anywhere that might provide tips, the federal minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour, against which the value of meals provided by the employer can be deducted.
A recent study by University College Berkeley found that Walmart’s low wages are costing the state of California alone $86 million a year to provide public assistance like food stamps. The state spends nearly $2,000 every single year on each Walmart employee who can’t afford basic essentials like housing, food, and healthcare. The tax-payer has to fork out more than $2.6 billion every single year to enable Walmart workers to live. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Walmart has just adopted a new healthcare policy that will deny insurance for any employees working fewer than 30 hours a week. And guess what - hardly any of them are now employed for more than 30 hours a week.
So who exactly are the benefit scroungers? Not the wretched workers struggling to stay alive, but their wealthy employers (owners of the British chain, ASDA, by the way) who are clawing money in from the state in order to foot their own wages bill. Talk about bah, humbug - it makes Scrooge look like the Angel Gabriel.
First published in the January 2013 edition of the Voice of Arran newsletter.
Quote of the Month:
If, in fact, torture is a crime (a mortal sin, if you will) - a signal of a nation's descent into depravity - then it doesn't matter whether it "works" or not. Zero Dark Thirty condones torture. Not a single character involved in "The Greatest Manhunt in History" expresses any regret about the CIA's use of torture. Maya/Chastain gets her man (code named "Geronimo!") and that's all that counts. The end justifies the vicious means.
David Clellan, ‘And the Academy Award for the Promotion of Torture Goes to…’ (truthout, USA, 9 January 2013).
Poems of Place (16)
If you sleep deeply enough,
You believe in Urbino’s ducal
Silence; if like a prisoner
In the dungeon of San Leo
Another life commands wakefulness:
You hear the baying of frightened dogs.
With the dawn the sorry animals
No longer yelp and bark, comfortless
Across the stillness of their masters’ neglect.
Strangely, too, and unexpectedly
Fears of the night have left
The dawn chorus in shock, unless
The season of killing long ago filled
The skies of Montefeltro
With the quietude of exploded feathers.
By Laura Solomon
Proverse, Hong Kong
Joint Winner of the Proverse Prize
Kindle edition (2010)
A teen read full of insight and humour
Fifteen year old Olivia (Livvy) Best has problems. On Christmas Day her Mum walks out on the family to live with her lesbian lover; her twin sister Mel, though a talented musician, is thieving, drinking and self-harming; her Dad is jobless, wrapped up in his first novel, and there is a gang of school thugs who are determined to make her life a misery.
Is Livvy downhearted; in despair? Is Laura Solomon’s book about to pitch the reader into a pit full of teenage angst? Mercifully not, for it soon turns out that Livvy is the only really grown-up person in her household, honest about her feelings, but in charge of them. Throughout this highly readable, first-person narrative, Olivia remains cheerful, optimistic, witty and unfazed.
GF (Green Frog)
Okay, she is upset by her Mum’s abandonment of the family and unimpressed by her then taking up with a teenage lover. Livvy is also deeply concerned about her sister’s manic behaviour. Yet she opts for tolerance, understanding and support, with the aid of her soft-toy pal, GF (Green Frog) who ‘has thoughts and feelings’: ‘Would you,’ she asks the reader, ‘think I was crazy if I told you we held conversations?’ admitting that she can see how such interaction ‘between a stuffed animal and adolescent girl might be construed as insane’.
As GF shows perception and good sense throughout the novel we accept him rather as an exemplar of sanity; until, that is, Livvy’s own maturation frees her from such dependency.
Bevan: no picture book
Set in London in quite clearly a period earlier than the current recession, Instant Images throughout portrays a life that brings its problems but at the same time never shrinks from opportunities. It’s also a tale about how people shift over time and through experience from antipathy to tolerance, to affection. Livvy’s fellow pupil Bevan is initially in the story unwashed, uncared for and violently bullied by his brother. Worse, he smells. He’s impossible.
Gradually, an appealing human emerges from the stereotype and Livvy is instrumental in bringing about that change; a change that culminates in love. Such a story could have submerged itself in dark shadows. Instead it is funny and optimistic, a reminder to the young reader that parents rarely make convincing role-models and occasionally let their own interests and passions come in the way of their responsibilities.
That, Livvy Best would argue, is not a reason for rejecting or disowning them. Laura Solomon has produced here a lively, funny, touching and engrossing novel about a time not so long ago when the life of a teenager probably held more promise than it does today.
Continuing the Baslow Letters
Plans for the production of DON QUIXOTE: THE MUSICAL are, we are delighted to learn, well under way. Here Ned Baslow has information to cheer up the author.
Dear Señor Cervantes
Good news! It looks as though we’ve found a decent composer/arranger to put our script of your masterpiece Don Quixote to music and delight the good people of Wickerstaff and beyond. It has been to our advantage that Herr Mozart (Wolfie to his friends and sponsors) and his family have fallen on hard times along with the rest of the Euro population, it seems. He is not only prepared to compose a number of areas for Lord Gilbert who plays the loony knight and a couple of duets to be sung by Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panzer, but he has ideas for lively pieces of Spanish fandango for the intervals.
I’m afraid we still haven’t resolved our differences over sponsorship. Spexsavers have been very generous in the past supporting our light operas and pantos, but there’s no such thing as a free meal and their PR people have made it clear to us that they’ll want a bit of a return for their money – meaning, in our case, putting it out, in publicity and to the audience, that Don Quixote’s bizarre behaviour in attacking windmills thinking they’re giants, is down to his poor eyesight, a factor that is to be remedied, in the opera’s grand finale, with his discovery of contact lenses.
We do understand your concerns with regard to rewriting the script of Don Quixote, but it’s important to understand that we are producing your work, without fee, in the 21st century when anything written prior to the Internet is considered old-hat by audiences.
Never fear, Lord Gilbert will do the melancholy knight proud, especially as we are hoping to engage a local author from Bakewell – Lord G’s second cousin – to gee up the text with a few well-placed jokes. Rest assured that the current political and economic problems of your country will not be mentioned.
Further, you’ll be delighted to know that the committee has approached the famous British artist, illustrator and visionary poet Billy Blake (Jerusalem etc.) to design the sets. He owes us as we put him right concerning his famous portrait of a horrible hairy creature on his hands and knees, wrongly identifying him as Nebuchadnezzar instead of the true varlet and worshipper of false gods, Nabonidos.
Yours in good spirit and happy anticipation.
Secretary and Treasurer, Wickerstaff Panto and Light Opera Society
In association with the Wickerstaff Indoor Bowls Club
In association with Gilbert Stokoe Enterprises
Local Sponsor: Cradle to the Grave Fish and Chip Restaurant.
Programmes of the Festival will be available shortly. Tickets to all events will go on sale at the beginning of April. Londoners and those resident below a line between Luton and Watford, are advised to make early phone bookings with any of the following institutions: The National Theatre, The Old Vic, the Royal Opera House and the London Zoo.
Thanks for reading Blog 37. Submissions, factual or fictional are welcome at Watsonworks@hotmail.co. Next: mid-February 2013.
James Watson books.
Five originally paper-print novels are available
from Amazon Kindle:
THE FREEDOM TREE (£1.03), set during the Spanish
Civil War, reaching its climax with the bombing of Guernica.
TALKING IN WHISPERS (£2.01). Chile during the tyrannical
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TICKET TO PRAGUE (£1.63). Tale of a friendship between Amy,
a teenage rebel, and Josef, an elderly Czech poet who had lost
the will to write; until she reads him The Good Soldier Sveck.
JUSTICE OF THE DAGGER (£2.03). Earthmovers, the Yellow Giants,
advance on the rainforest of East Timor. The people have only
arrows and courage to resist them.
FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA (£5.15). Uneven playing fields
in Ukraine: with the ball at her feet Natasha shows talent,
resolution and the will to win. Her quest is to discover whether
these qualities translate into life.